Still trying to make sense of South Africa

Cape Town

(above: View from a balcony, Cape Town)

With the death of Nelson Mandela recently, and the acres of newsprint and billions of pixels devoted to the past, present and future of South Africa now that he has gone, I have been thinking a lot about Mandela and the country that I visited three and a half years ago during the World Cup, the final of which happened to be his last, major public appearance. I have also been thinking further back, to those posters on the wall at our home in the 1980s, the two concerts we went to as kids at Wembley Stadium, and standing in the drizzle of Millennium Square in Leeds a decade later as he addressed the crowd.

I thought about the fact that Nelson Mandela was – along with Vaclav Havel – one of the heroes of my political education, and one of the inspirations for my long-standing and continuing interest in societies in transition and how we manage our collective past and memory to move forward to a more positive future. Both men were flawed, because – after all – everyone is and must be, but in post-apartheid South Africa and post-communist Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), both Mandela and Havel offered examples of how we can bring together a fractured and damaged society, and how appealing to the good in people, the positive and the progressive, can shape that society for the better.

On the Road

(above: On the road through South Africa)

Now they are both gone, Havel in 2011 and Mandela in 2013, although both – for health reasons in Havel’s case and age in Mandela’s – survived longer than we could have hoped. As I said, millions of words have been written down in the last few days about Mandela’s words and deeds throughout a remarkable life, as they were about Havel two years ago, so I will just say that what they left behind as individuals is a legacy of lessons for those who will find themselves in comparable positions in the future, in the power of negotiation and forgiveness, and the importance of both in achieving truth and reconciliation.

And I pick up my journal from 2010 and flick through to read the pages I scribbled in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg during a trip that I think I am still digesting as the next World Cup approaches… perhaps this is why I never before committed to this blog or anywhere else any of my thoughts or observations about the country I discovered in that oh-so-brief visit.  One particular entry caught my eye, which was written after a visit to the powerful and moving District Six museum. District Six was an mixed-race inner-city district in Cape Town from which 60,000 residents were forcibly removed in the 1970s, as part of the apartheid philosophy of reducing “interracial interaction”. The district  stories and the experiences of the people that once called the neighbourhood home.

District Six

(above: Inside the District Six Museum, Cape Town)

Later, up in a middle class suburb on the hillside between the city and the looming Table Mountain, I sat on the balcony and tried to bring a number of days experiences and conversations together:

“The stories of District Six are incredible… and it is hard to imagine that something like this was happening so recently. But of course I can remember the images from South Africa we saw on our news screens when I was a kid… Later we ate dinner in a nice restaurant… short walk through a neighbourhood of gated villas and barking dogs… the only people on the street.  We marvel at the cheapness of the steak and wine on the table in front of us and in the next breath talk about the disparity in the quality of life we observe as we move through this fascinating, beautiful, troubling country… 

Parallel worlds still exist of course, twenty years after the end of Apartheid. There remains economic segregation, the pace of change is slow.  And yet no-one yet is really imagining a scenario as has happened in countries to the north… but when does the patience run out? When do those people in the townships march up the hill to these villas and lay claim to the quiet streets, the swimming pools, the Mercedes and the BMWs?

That they haven’t reminds me again of what an incredible job Mandela, Tutu and the rest did with the end of Apartheid and the first democratic elections… the spirit of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and an incredible attempt to convince the white population that they had a future in the new South Africa. And then someone tells me… Mandela holds it together… and you realise how old he and the others are… and that the new black middle class will protect its gains as much as the old dominant group did and do… and the kids living in shacks are still in the same position as the generation before… I don’t know. You get the feeling that this place has everything going for it to be the best of the world in one country… but who knows if South Africa will get there…”


(above: Driving through Johannesburg)

As I said, my mind back then was reeling from an explosion of experiences and observations, of driving through the strange unreality of downtown Johannesburg, of being taken through Soweto and then back in the evening to the electric fences and gated communities, of the shacks and the suburbs rubbing up against each other on a hillside above the sea, and of arriving in the small town in the Eastern Cape at dusk, as hundreds of black people walked the hard shoulder from the town centre where they worked, to the township of breezeblocks and corrugated iron a few kilometres down the road, to where they lived. These are impressions that do not leave you, and still it is hard to make sense of them.


(above: From a balcony in Soweto)

“Mandela holds it together…”

I can hear the voice in my ear as we walk through Durban on the way to a World Cup Semi Final. It was a surreal scene, as was the sight of Soccer City viewed from afar from a balcony above the rooftops of Soweto. A country of spectacular landscape with a tragic past, an unstable present and a perilous future. And I think of Vaclav Havel again and perhaps the wisest step they took in the political transition of his country. It was clear from the beginning that the movement of liberation could not become the party of government. The Civic Forum was divided into 1991 into different political parties, that allowed from the beginning a true oppositional politics that was not necessarily related to what came before. In a recent article in the Guardian, William Gumede argues for such a split in South Africa:

“This could be good news for the country’s democracy. South Africa’s existing political party system is not fit for purpose. The old parties – the ANC and those of the opposition – are so steeped in pre-apartheid political cultures that they are wholly inappropriate as instruments to deepen the infant democracy.”

There have been many mistakes on the road to democracy, and perhaps the overwhelming power of the ANC is one of them… that was certainly the impression give to me as I spoke to people in South Africa, from all sections of the community.

Aside from the truly inspirational stories of Nelson Mandela’s lifetime, it is this debate about what comes next in all this coverage that most interests me. I don’t care about what our politicians did or did not do during Apartheid, if they are hypocrites now (and I don’t need this event to persuade me of that fact), or whether Presidents are posing for pictures at a memorial service. The conversation, which is not to be had here but in South Africa of course, is what happens now and in the future. In my brief experience I discovered a wonderful country that has now lost its wonderful figurehead. I hope and wish for the best.

Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton

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